Francois Truffaut was one of the critics for Cahiers du Cinéma, the seminal French film journal of the 1950s and ’60s, and one of the founders of the Nouvelle Vague (the New Wave), the inconoclastic film movement of the mid-’50s. The critics were dissatisfied with contemporary French cinema, accusing it of having lapsed into complacency. They sought a new cinema, a personal, auteurist cinema, one that depicted real life with urgency and verisimilitude.
But these weren’t your average armchair critics. These were men with the talent to back up their arguments. And Truffaut did just that.
His first film, The 400 Blows, was a revelation. Truffaut examined the life of Antoine Doinel, a 13-year-old boy on the cusp of adolescence and adulthood, played by Jean-Pierre Leaud. It is one of cinema’s greatest portrayals of childhood and adolescence, full of humor, wit, sadness and beauty.
Truffaut uses his locales masterfully. When Antoine and a friend ditch school, they venture to an amusement park, one whose charms they are beginning to outgrow. One scene shows them taking in a Punch ‘n’ Judy show, where children aged 5 or 6 sit in rapt attention while the two older boys sit in the back, leaning against a wall, jaded but without taking much pleasure in their jadedness, instead seeming to long for the simplicity of childhood.
Antoine then tries out one of the park’s rides, what is sometimes today called the Gravitron, a circular room that spins until the customers are pinned to the wall. The world begins to hurdle by in mad rush for Antoine, the chaos and confusion of adolescence made concrete and dizzying.
But perhaps the most famous image from The 400 Blows is the final frame, an ambiguous but powerful conclusion wherein Antoine, seeking escape and refuge, runs away across landscapes and along winding roads, through bushes and trees and finally to the sea, whereupon the frame freezes as Antoine turns from the sea to face the camera. Is it a dead end? Has he learned that he can run away from everything but not himself? Has he essentially quit running and turned to confront his life and his problems? Is it despair or is it epiphany? Or both? Truffaut’s genius was in capturing the essence of the dilemma, all too aware that solutions are much harder to come by.
Photograph: Jean-Pierre Leaud in Francois Truffaut’s New Wave classic The 400 Blows.